Thursday, May 13, 2010

Collapse of Fundamentalism

The rise and fall of fundamentalism in the Baha'i community, over a few brief decades, is an experience that may galvanize that community, and none too soon, for severe testing in its immediate future. Broad brush strokes of this episode paint a few fundamentalists attempting a failed coup d'etat, an equally small group of English-speaking intellectuals forming a resistance movement which achieved some success in thwarting a "foreign occupation" of the Baha'i community and perhaps most important at present, the need to mop up remaining residual effects which might burden the Baha'i community presently or in coming tests.

Terms like liberal, conservative, intellectuals and fundamentalists may suggest greater divisions among people than actually exist, a more black-or-white portrayal of persons and events than warranted. The challenge to find the optimal shade of gray was described here:
Perhaps more compelling of all was the trade off among potentially competing requirements in the Baha'i writings: the acknowledged need to protect a somewhat fragile, young religion versus the abundant liberal teachings promoted by the Baha'is. Where is the balance? Where is moderation needed? These are admittedly difficult issues.
While a better and more fair assessment might well result in perhaps subtle, but significant differences in shades of gray, let us try a more dramatized version, if only for pedagogical purposes, leaving to historians to detail the exact shades of gray.

A fundamentalism for dummies definition, in the Fundamentalism Bubble Burst pilot study, was "conservative, fundamentalist, anti-intellectual, authoritarian, theocratic, anti-freedom" attitudes or behavior. This fundamentalism rubric may include absolutist, autocratic, disciplinarian, fascist and/or totalitarian elements.

In the opening scenes of our story, we find a Baha'i community consisting almost entirely of liberal-minded, tolerant, gentle, kind and loving people, dedicated to the oneness of God, religion and mankind. With a few items of religious belief, almost anybody could become a member of the community. Hence, persons with many varieties of unsavory motives could easily join and therefore "infiltrate" the Baha'i community.

Further, current members, if so inclined, could easily attempt to attain dominating positions in this community, to achieve a sort of coup d'etat with respect to its legitimate organization with elected institutions and appointed officials.

The system of appointed Counsellors who in turn appoint Auxiliary Board Members (ABM) may have been chosen as a vulnerable point for invasion, since these appointees might better influence events compared to elected members of Baha'i institutions, where the individual is just one vote among nine Assembly members. A further speculation is that usurpers needed to gain legitimacy, which could be done by tweaking the shade of gray in the community toward their more extremist, fanatic preferences.

To the extent that the objective was to dominate and thereby overthrow existing legitimate authority, these extremists might also be thought of as insurgents.

A milestone description of success attained in this take-over effort, The Baha’i Faith in America as Panopticon, 1963-1997, by Juan R. I. Cole, The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Volume 37, No. 2 (June 1998): 234-248, appeared one year before the end of Peak Fundamentalism (1993-1999), according to my work.

Both the usurpers and resistance movement were culturally English-speaking Westerners and mostly North Americans. It may be curious that the lead usurpers were not Iranian Baha'is, who -- some might wrongly think -- might be more prone to theocratic or authoritarian tendencies. It may be that the Iranian (known as Persian) Baha'is, as a minority in the West, were just too smart to attempt such a coup, knowing Westerners would resist, or else played some role behind the scenes in support of the Western extremist invaders. Perhaps the best working explanation, for the moment, is that cultural support for free thought and expression among Iranians is in fact an order of magnitude greater than what outsiders might imagine. Thus, strangely, the usurpers were mostly Westerners, perhaps striving to be more pious to obtain influential positions.

A coup d'etat may succeed as usurper legitimacy is accepted by the populace. A common method of usurpers is to attempt to solve perceived problems by issuing orders. However, the orders, such as "disregard your own conscience", "see through our eyes and not your own" and the like, were too foreign to the sensibilities of the Baha'i community. Thus, the fundamentalism bust starting in 2000 and its ever-growing resistance suggest that this overthrow attempt has failed to achieve sustainable legitimacy.

The record of this invasion of the fundamentalists unfolded almost as if leading invaders actually met at some point and planned a multi-step program, leading up to election of some leading insurgents to the UHJ. However, examination of the first steps may reveal that such a take-over plan was doomed to fail from its beginning.

First, the major target was academics, scholars and other intellectuals. It may have been wrongly assumed that these historians, linguists, Middle East experts and the like, spending most of their time in libraries among dusty books, would be weak, vulnerable wimps. What better target for the town bullies, so to speak, to prove their metal, garner easy victories and get battle hardened? What a colossal blunder.

The targeted intellectuals were not wimps, but rather quickly formed a resistance movement which, according to the present thesis, has succeeded in provoking the collapse of the erstwhile coup d'etat.

Second, another fatal assumption may have been that discouraged, disenrolled, unenrolled so-called dissidents would just go away. While some did, a formidable contingent did not. For those who did leave the community and discussions about it, even that is a sign of strength, a rejection of participation as wimps.

A resistance movement may use improvised weapons, and in this case, the internet was rather fully exploited. Participation in unmoderated forums such as talk.religion.bahai continued to rise to a peak in 2004. Other forums continued vigorous activity and many web sites and blogs became increasingly popular among Baha'is, covering virtually every aspect of the Baha'i experience from an unenrolled Baha'i forum to Sen McGlinn's historical studies. In short, quite an impressive and articulate group is saying, for all to see on the internet, "You don't have to be a member to love the Baha'i teachings and talk about them." In brief, without the ability to silence their opposition, the usurpers were doomed to fail.

In addition to this public resistance movement, much resistance activity went underground when totalitarian domination of the community under occupation became sufficiently intimidating. For example, many years prior to the advent of computer printers, I received via snail mail a draft manuscript of a scholarly effort by multiple authors on the question of women serving on the UHJ marked "not for publication without permission". This is just one indication of the fear that the usurpers managed to create.

Freedom fighter is another term for those engaged in a struggle to achieve freedom for themselves or others.

The primary road to power and influence for fundamentalists has been appointed positions, namely, among Counsellors, who in turn appoint Auxiliary Board Members. Although some top-tier proponents were elected to the UHJ (starting in 1987), have concluded their service as UHJ members and have been packing up and going home, so to speak, it may take some time to mop up fundamentalism insurgents in this pyramid of appointed persons. Indeed, a large ship with tens of thousands of passengers takes time to slow down and change course.

Many liberal-minded freedom fighters may have missed the fundamentalism bubble burst in this decade. Ironically, they cannot take credit for helping cause this bust, if they haven't yet realized that it is now in progress. O ye liberals, step forward and take credit where credit is due.

Likewise, many mid-level operatives and assistants recruited to help the invaders may also have not heard the news -- the war is over. For all, it is time to come out of the bunkers, tear down the barricades. How can the invaders know that it is time to stop persecuting intellectuals, if they don't yet know the war is over?

The mop up consists of identifying and properly inactivating any remaining terminator robots programmed with extremist, fanatic ideas. Even better, where possible, is to reprogram the mid-level appointees to protect the intellectual minorities within Baha'i communities. "Let them talk about whatever they want; maybe we might get lucky and learn something from them some day."

To avoid future adventures to suppress intellectuals and individual thought, expression and conscience, let us increase the threshold. Call the Counsellors when one or more Baha'is are hospitalized due to fighting among themselves. If we are short of personnel to "keep the peace" (budget constrains will be a factor), up the threshold to one or more fatalities. In this context, somebody talking about women on the UHJ or whatever who-knows-what idea, is reduced to a "so what". After all, people will talk; that's not surprizing or disturbing in itself.
Phone: Ring, Ring
Counsellor: Hello, what's up?
Caller: Some Baha'is are discussing stuff here.
Counsellor: How many dead in the morgue so far?
Caller: Um, nobody ... yet. They're talking about women on the UHJ.
Counsellor: You're kidding? You think I'm coming there over something like that? Just tell them to keep the discussion calm and polite. We can't afford to have any more dead Baha'is.
Caller: ...[silence]...
Counsellor: Hello, you there? You can handle that, buddy. Call me back if there is somebody in intensive care at the hospital ... or better, just call the police in that case.
Universal House of Justice
Did the Universal House of Justice (UHJ) itself play a role in the crash of fundamentalism?

1. The UHJ Member Index for fundamentalism crashed in the 2000-2010 UHJ elections by a breath-taking 73 percent by two mechanisms. First, NSA voters appeared to change their preferences, in effect, refusing to elect new UHJ members with equal or even greater fundamentalism notoriety than the replaced members. Second, at least four previous UHJ members were replaced because of voluntary retirement. This suggests the question of whether or not one or more is these retirements was actually forced by the UHJ itself behind closed doors, "You are fired; we will arrange an election for your replacement as soon as possible. You may save face by announcing your retirement for personal or health reasons." While many will surely ponder this obvious question, convincing confirmation of such a scenario is possible, but probably not likely, at least in the near future.

In support of this theory, by-elections to replace retiring UHJ members seem to have been held on an ASAP (as soon as possible) basis. The 2000, 2005 and 2010 elections were each two years after and three years before the regular elections in 2003, 2008 and 2013 respectively. While health or personal reasons could have required early retirement in all cases, the question remains: were there exceptions as in forced retirements?

2. The author has suggested that the UHJ may have deliberately taken a pro-active role in the fundamentalism mop-up operation by promotion of greater access to, and use of, the internet by Baha'i communities, which would include NSA voters in UHJ elections. For example, the Baha'i Internet Agency (BIA) was formed, which in turn supported, no doubt resulting in increased internet usage during the latter half of the collapse period (2005-2010), as a direct result of UHJ initiative, adding to the like secular trend already in progress. If NSA voters were better informed via the internet, it is a given that most would eventually be exposed to and repulsed by the divisive activities of some of the most notorious fundamentalists.

3. One might argue that the UHJ has been careful to fill vacancies at the International Teaching Centre (ITC) with zero-divisive-notoriety Baha'is. All the current ITC Counsellors have zero talk.religion.bahai search results -- the metric used in the fundamentalism pilot study. Thus, NSA voters in upcoming UHJ elections will have to look outside the ITC membership if they truly prefer to elevate fundamentalist insurgents to the UHJ. However, the present hypothesis is that the trend is exactly the opposite -- a collapse of fundamentalism in the Baha'i community. And should NSA voters continue, to some extent, to favor ITC members, it appears that the UHJ has appointed more moderate, unifying persons, instead of the fanatically inclined.

4. A recent report revealed that the BIA, which purports to be created by the UHJ, has essentially abolished censorship and provided strong support for individual freedom and free speech in the Baha'i community regarding publishing activity. This gutsy move may not have been possible if fundamentalist invaders still commanded decisive influence when this particular development unfolded around 2006 when the BIA began issuing its position papers.

Individuals and Other Elected Institutions:
Various extremists and fanatics among appointees are known to violate the sanctity, dignity and respect due to Baha'i individuals and elected institutions. They will be more than happy to take away freedom if they are allowed to do so.

Without a systematic, wide-spread mop-up effort, victories already won in the apparent collapse of fundamentalism can be lost.

Let us assume that Baha'is did not work for generations to see the fruits of all that effort lost in just a few years, that Baha'is will need to defend their freedoms and the core values in the Baha'i Faith and Administration, as set forth in the Baha'i writings, the constitution of the Universal House of Justice, the articles of incorporation and/or by-laws of various local and national spiritual assemblies, and more. In short, know your rights and toughen up to defend them.

When Confronted by a Terminator
Here are some ideas -- improvised, peaceful "weapons" -- which might be effective. [Please add your comment on these ideas and others. Thank you.]

1. Get it in writing (ref. Dr. Juan Cole, 1996); tape record it; video record it. If there is a desire to keep it off the record, consider skipping it all together. What legitimate Baha'i communication must be "off the record"? Notes must be taken; minutes must be written. OK, may be there are some; but for me, I'm not interested in participating in secret talks like spies or whatever.

2. Refuse to give audience to a known usurper. Reportedly, some individuals and Assemblies know from previous experience that certain persons are impolite, irrational, make outrageous threats or generally are unable to behave according to accepted norms. What would 'Abdu'l-Baha do? Would he receive such persons known to be intent on contentiousness and conflict? Remember, some persons are simply sick -- you know, have character disorders, issues with aggression, and so forth. They need help; not the opportunity to further embarrass themselves.

3. Report all inappropriate, aggressive, domineering behavior to the usurper's immediate superior. Explicitly reject all threats, direct or implied. If there is not a prompt and satisfactory response, including a specific apology, from the immediate superior, take the report one step higher. Make it clear that the usurper will not be received in the future in your home or by your Assembly, unless they learn to behave themselves.

4. Do not allow a usurper to continue their presentation if it is not polite, not humble, or if it is aggressive (e.g., shouting, excessively emotional, contains threats, etc). Excuse them immediately and send them on their way from your home or Assembly.

5. Get documentation -- emails, etc. In particular, if your visitor has traveled to any significant extent, get the travel costs (plane fares, etc). This may be part of routine pre-presentation data gathering, to include travel costs, applicable direct superior, etc.

6. Learn to spot insurgents so one can be prepared if they come your way.

7. Share stories of counter-insurgency, mop-up operations at gatherings, Feasts, to heighten awareness, spread knowledge of resistance techniques.

8. Silence can be golden. If a visitor, say, an ABM, makes an objectionable presentation, say nothing. If the ABM waits outside for some result of Assembly consultation, when everybody is leaving, just say "No comment." Silence can be a very forceful, rather firm and telling statement of position.
Before we get to the "shock and awe" section, please keep in mind that most Baha'is, most Counsellors and ABMs, most Assembly members are honorable, loving hard-working people. Nonetheless, where there are exceptions, the author believes that increased unity in the Baha'i community is needed to restore strength and vigor to confront possibly harsh tests from external forces in coming times. Increased unity does not happen by magic, it requires effort. The quicker the mop up, the greater the unity.
9. Use "shock and awe" events. Often the best communication, the most effective way to spread the word of the collapse of fundamentalism, the abandonment of censorship, etc, is a dramatic event -- something which may be specifically staged to show the rank and file in a very concrete and tangible way that "we are not kidding", to include individuals, Assemblies and even the UHJ. Here are some samples, which definitely should be featured in when they happen.

Let us start with honorary, high-profile events for resistance celebrities presented with attractive life-time achievement awards featuring a talk by the resistance leaders on any topic of their choice:
Ann Arbor, MI, Baha'i community to honor Juan "Cool Hand Luke" Cole.

A national gala in New Zealand to honor Alison "Win-win" Marshall.

A regional conference in Los Angeles, CA, to honor Anthony "Free Press" Lee, the LA Study Group members, the Dialogue magazine staff, and the "A Modest Proposal" authors.

Wilmette, IL, a national unenrolled Baha'i conference honoring Karen "Myth Breaker" Bacquet, hopefully just before a national convention.

London, Great Britain, special celebration to honor Denis "Final Judgement" MacEoin, Sen "Doctor Logic" McGlinn and Moojan "Psy-Op Terminator" Momen.

Baha'i World Centre, to honor Frederick "Poet Giant" Glayser, K Paul "Masters Revealed" Johnson and Eric "Executive Director" Stetson.

Baha'i Temple, India, to honor William "Captian India" Garlington.
Where necessary, travel and per diem expenses should be provided to the honorees. A documentary film crew might be deployed to record these shock-and-awe celebrations, reality-show style, from the initial contacts of resistance celebrities, to their thoughts, travel and arrival experiences to the events, including their presentations with follow-up in subsequent weeks and months. The anticipated result will be a quantum leap in enthusiasm, tolerance and readiness for action in the Baha'i community and loads of free publicity, too.
© 2010 James J Keene

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